Dash the imagination against something hard

by Susan Cahill

Susan Cahill is an Associate Professor of Literature in the School of Irish Studies, Concordia University, Montréal. She is currently writing a novel.

The Montréal heat is a heavy heat, unlike everything I know, humid and sticky, the electric pulse of the cicadas blurring my assumptions about what nature sounds like. Montréal summers confuse me, too, with their inevitability, the heat certain in its arrival, consistent and steady. The summers I grew up in had no certainty, always carrying with them the possibility of a scattering of rain, the chill of an Irish summer breeze, bent on unsettling. But there is another heat I knew as a child: three years in Saudi Arabia, heat dry like a bone, as big as a desert sky, intense as a wound.

Writing sends me back to these places. Memories of Irish summers tug at me like a silver belly flickering out of the darkness. Memories of Saudi heat push at my forehead. On the keyboard, jolting in the muscle memory of my fingertips, something emerges from the deep. The sensation of my head exposed to the skies. I wonder what these feelings have to do with the sentences that are forming.

I am an academic trying to retrain my hand and my head. I am trying to trick myself into creativity, to let my hand loosen, my head open. Instead of stalking an idea with ruthless determination through a landscape of books, notes, and arguments, I sit remembering what my childhood might have taught me about writing.

 

Childhood summers in Ardmore, Co. Waterford. A small village on the Irish coast, where my Grandad had built a summer house with large windows that looked over the bay. Round Tower at one end, coastguard station on the other. Everyone oriented towards the sea.

The breeze pulls at our hair and clothes as we scramble over the stony path to the beach, inching our feet over the pebbles until we find the softness of sand. The wind skates along the beach and we screech as we race towards the sea’s edge, cold water shocking our ankles. Even the towels my mother places for my little sister to sit on flip up at the edges, eager to join the wind’s rush, to get carried away on the summer gusts. Grandad is taking us fishing.

We rush to be helpful, pushing our small bodies behind the boat’s trailer, straining our arms under delusions of effectiveness. Grandad sends us to get the buckets, reeking of the dull tang of old fish and seawater. He has entrusted me with the fishing lines and I carefully pick up the homemade frames ringed with orange twine, knowing that one false move will catch my finger on the silver hook, like a fish’s gullet. The wooden frame of the fishing line is uneasy in the wind, and I grapple with danger and responsibility, barefoot back over the stones. The grasses at the edge of the path reach for the sky, hungry for the openness.

We are going to catch mackerel. We are going to fill a bucket with their slimy, sleek, blue-marbled bodies and we are going to eat them. Nanna will gut them, opening their skin to flesh, discarding most of their tricky bones; later, the ones she missed stick in the flesh of my throat, prickly and terrifying. She will dip the mackerel in a plate of gluey egg and a dish of flour, then drop them into a frying pan. An act of alchemy. The oil will spit and sizzle and the smell of the meaty fish, juicy and warm, will bring us all into the kitchen. The thought of this treat is almost enough to sustain us on Grandad’s small boat. The wind and sea spray whip over our knees. Grandad remains immune to our pleading to return to shore.

There is nothing like that feeling, when the slack twine twitches in your hand, the excitement of something moving far below in the deep blue depths. A feeling in my fingers years later at a keyboard, this tug, this communing with the unknown.

Grandad teaches us: unspool the line—“Careful of the hooks!”—and drop the weight into the water. Feel as it falls into the depth. Let it out. Let it drift. Pull it in, fast now so that the feathers race through the water like giddy little sprats. Pull it in until you can see the hook. Let it go. Let it spool through your hands. Repeat until you feel the tug.

We are hooked. Small children tied to the flick of a fish on a line. There is nothing like that feeling, when the slack twine twitches in your hand, the excitement of something moving far below in the deep blue depths. A feeling in my fingers years later at a keyboard, this tug, this communing with the unknown.

Sometimes Grandad guts the fishes there on the boat, bait needed for the lobster pots. He shows us how to hook a thumb under their gills and snap their heads back, killing them quickly. The boat becomes a mess of blood and guts, the translucent beauty of the fish scales strange against the gore. The seagulls squawk and reel and look at us with their flat eyes, impatiently waiting to be fed. I wonder if they would eat us too, given half a chance.

The lobster pot looks so light in the water, floating upwards, pulled by rope, a strange umbilical connection between Grandad and the sea. And then it’s out, heavy and awkward, full of scrabbling things and draining water. Often it has caught nothing but eels, shiny and lithe, thick ribs of muscle. They flail, angry at our presumptuous disturbing of their sea bed lives. I hold my breath, anxious that they will escape and slither uncontrollably around the boat. Grandad tilts the pot and spills them out into the sea, their snaking bodies disappearing into the murk.

Crabs are only good if they’re big enough. Too small and they also go in the water, Grandad flinging them high in the air, their pale bodies like coins falling as wishes into the deep. Lobsters are what we are here for. They are the prize, beautiful with their dark blue, marbled bodies. Later, we run up from the car, our feet still numb from the cold, water sloshing from the buckets, shouting, “Three lobsters! We caught three lobsters!” We prod the lobsters with sticks, jumping back with glee when their claws snatch, until Nanna rescues them for their untimely end.

 

I think that it gave me a sense of the unknown, fishing, a feeling that you could reach in and pluck something from the depths, that life was there, moving out of sight. I have this same feeling now as I let the line of words unwind across the page, hoping it will catch a slippery, silvery idea or a snatching, biting one.

I learned all this as a child. I learned to hold the line loose in my hand. I learned to wait, and to trust, and to be open to danger. I had learned what happened underneath the skin.

Of course, I am not the first to think in these metaphors. Ted Hughes says that poetry and fishing share a particular way of engaging the mind, a mix of alertness and receptivity. “Now where did the poet learn to settle his mind like that on to one thing?” he writes:

Not in school, but while I was fishing. [. . .] Your whole being rests lightly on your float, but not drowsily: very alert, so that the least twitch of the float arrives like an electric shock. And you are not only watching the float. You are aware, in a horizonless and slightly mesmerized way, like listening to the double bass in orchestral music, of the fish below there in the dark. At every moment your imagination is alarming itself with the size of the thing slowly leaving the weeds and approaching your bait.

Hughes’s writing asks for a kind of meditative attention, but what interests me is the lurking menace, a sense of danger undergirding contemplation. I find something similar in Virginia Woolf, with her liquid prose, her sentences spinning out like a fishing line.

When Woolf thinks of herself as “a girl sitting with a pen in her hand”:

The image that comes to mind [. . .] is the image of a fisherman lying sunk in dreams on the verge of a deep lake with a rod held out over the water. She was letting her imagination sweep unchecked round every rock and cranny of the world that lies submerged in the depths of our unconscious being. [. . .] The line had raced through the girl’s fingers. Her imagination had rushed away. It had sought the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber. And then there was a smash. There was an explosion. There was foam and confusion. The imagination had dashed itself against something hard.

Woolf’s image sends something racing through my memories, something dangerous and painful, unspooling my imagination. I recognize myself here, a child alert to peril, each fishing trip presenting a risk and a possibility, destruction or dinner waiting in the waters. Woolf’s image calls for a writing that goes deep, that is brave enough to encounter the creatures there that can tear open the imagination. I learned all this as a child. I learned to hold the line loose in my hand. I learned to wait, and to trust, and to be open to danger. I had learned what happened underneath the skin. And I had forgotten it all.

 

When I was seven or eight, I cut my head open. I have a large scar in the middle of my forehead which is now hard to distinguish from the wrinkles that appeared sooner and dug deeper because of it.

We were living in Saudi Arabia, a place unlike Ireland, but a place I associate with the idyllic childhood moments of my summers in Ardmore. The compound where we lived, the American school, the desert as far as the horizon. Safe, delineated spaces, punctuated by the wild openness of sand. A place of play and discovery. Of schools turned into haunted houses, of papier-mâché made into volcanoes. Praying mantises fading in and out of the greenery. Dry pink flowers and thick succulent grasses. The sight of camels at the roundabout. The sky stretching into a haze of heat.

Saudi is a large sandbox because I am a child. There is no end to the sky and the desert. It is the beginning of a coming into self. It is a place in between. And it is the place where my head was opened.

Quite literally.

I was seven or eight, and this is how I remember it.

Dragging my sister into my parents’ room to show her my new trick of somersaulting from the dresser onto their bed. Missing the mattress, my forehead making contact with the precise metal edge of the bed frame. Putting my fingers to my head and feeling liquid where there should be solid, seeing blood on my fingertips. My sister screaming. My mother running with a tea towel in her hand and wrapping it around my head. My father peeling back the tea towel in the hospital carpark and saying with clinical excitement: “I can see your skull!” Refusing to allow my father to come into the hospital where he was a doctor. Seven stitches.

All I remember is my skin not being where it should be, the endless sky a mirror of my open head.

I cannot tell if it changed me, the splitting open of my head. The thrill of the jump. The pain of contact. I cannot remember the pain, though I know I felt it. All I remember is my skin not being where it should be, the endless sky a mirror of my open head. Writing feels like this too, like putting my fingers to my head and touching a liquid nothing.

 

I try to remember what Grandad taught me. He was a calm and patient man, always there like a standing stone in my life; inscrutable, quiet, and steady.

He taught us how to ride a bike. The exhilaration of the fine balance of the bicycle beneath you, the summer grass spinning past, shouting back at him—“Don’t let go! Don’t let go!”—and you’d look back and realize he’d let go a while ago, standing there, arms folded, squinting against the sun. You’d realize that you’d been riding the bike all by yourself.

Hold on. Wait. Let go.

He taught me that I could do what I thought I couldn’t do. That letting go is as hard as holding on. Or as easy.

I was in a tangle and I didn’t know how to see it. I didn’t know which thread to pull, how to follow it through.

I have been letting go. Or trying to. It began with writing poetry about skies untethering me, as if the sky cares about my roots, my connections. I was writing poetry about being in love. About distances and depths and the ways that they pulled at me. I was in a tangle and I didn’t know how to see it. I didn’t know which thread to pull, how to follow it through. The blue of the sky in Montreal is extreme, shearing my head open. It reminds me of a leap into the air and the drama of impact. I think of Woolf’s imagination dashing itself on something hard. Another memory surfaces. Another line. A child jumping into the darkness like a fish caught on a hook.

 

I write about these memories. I read what I have written. I notice something.

Childhood moments filled with danger and sharp objects: hooks, fish bones, thumbs hooked under gills, blood and scales, eels, spiteful breezes, an indifferent sea, my forehead stitched up like Frankenstein’s monster.

There is danger here. Fear of my skin being punctured, my throat pierced, my forehead opened. The hook and the fish bone and the moment of contact. The spaciousness of the sea and the sky, the fragility of my boundaries. Recently, I learned that Grandad couldn’t swim. All those hours on the boat, he drifted pleasantly over waters dangerous to him, floating on wildness.

But is this, after all, what writing is, what writing means? Follow the lines. The sentence, the fishing line, the scar. Is this, finally, what my Grandad taught me: to be a child holding a line into the deep, communing with the unfathomable? And my father, with his medical fascination of the body’s insides, the wonder in his voice when he saw the white bone of my skull. Did he teach me to move beyond the pain, to marvel at the bones, to pay attention to what is happening to the body?

These memories are in my body. Writing is in my fingertips, along with the tug of the deep and the feeling of blood beyond the skin. I am waiting to pull, feeling for that telltale jolt, that liquid openness in my forehead, my head open to the waters and the blood and the darkness.

 


Susan Cahill is an Associate Professor of Literature in the School of Irish Studies, Concordia University, Montréal. She is currently writing a novel.

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